Alejo Valmont Carpentier was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1904. His parents had immigrated to Cuba two years before. His father was a French architect, and his mother was of Russian origin. Carpentier, whose first language was French (he retained throughout his life a French accent in Spanish), was sent to the best schools in Havana. While in his early teens, he and his parents made a very long trip to Europe, first traveling to Russia to claim an inheritance and later spending a good deal of time in Paris. In the French capital, Carpentier attended high school and began to acquire what was to become his awesome musical erudition. Back in Cuba, Carpentier finished his secondary education and registered at the university. He wanted to be an architect, like his father, but two events prevented his finishing his university studies. First, his father left home and was never heard from again, which forced Carpentier to earn a living for himself and his mother. Second, classes at the university were frequently canceled because of political turmoil.
Carpentier left school altogether and joined the revolutionary students who were fighting against Gerardo Machado y Morales, a dictator supported by the United States. Carpentier worked as a journalist and was instrumental in founding the Afro-Cuban movement, which hailed Cuba’s African heritage. Afro-Cubanism wanted to create a new aesthetic based on Afro-Cuban folklore, and, as a political movement, championed the cause of the exploited black workers. Carpentier was jailed briefly in early 1928; a few months later, he managed to escape to France, where he was protected by his friend, the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos.
Between 1928 and 1930, Carpentier was associated with the influential Surrealist movement, and, in 1930, he participated in one of the squabbles that split the group. He had learned from Surrealism that his desire to look at things from a non-European perspective, something he had sought through Afro-Cubanism, was a major force in all avant-garde aesthetics. It became his major preoccupation as an artist. Translated into his own terms, the issue was how to look at reality with Latin American eyes. In France, he met other Latin American artists engaged in the same quest: the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, the Venezuelan novelist Arturo Uslar Pietri, and the Cuban folklorist Lydia Cabrera. He learned from all of them, as well as from James Joyce, the great Irish writer living in Paris at the time, who was plumbing the English language in search of a new way of expressing the world. Marginality—Joyce from the British Empire, the Latin Americans from Europe in general—was the bond.
Carpentier made a living in Paris with radio work, becoming an expert on radio broadcasting and advertising; these two activities became his source of income for many years thereafter. In Paris, he needed them, for he married very shortly after settling in that city. His wife, who was Swiss, died soon of tuberculosis, and Carpentier married a Frenchwoman who accompanied him back to Cuba in 1939, on the eve of World War II.
In Cuba, Carpentier was known mainly as a journalist, for he had also made a living by writing articles about Europe for Carteles, a Cuban weekly magazine of which Carpentier had been a founding editor at the age of nineteen. His articles on the new European art had made him rather well known, but not really as a writer. The fact is that by 1939, when he returned to Havana, Carpentier had published only ¡Ecué-Yamba-O!, an unsuccessful novel about blacks in Cuba.
Between 1939 and 1945, when he again left Cuba, Carpentier made decisions that changed his life. First, he divorced his French wife and married a Cuban woman from a well-to-do family. This new wife, Lilia Esteban Hierro, to whom he dedicated every book he wrote after 1939, remained with him until his death. Second, he immersed himself in the history of the Caribbean, in search of the...
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